Image and Propaganda in the reigns of Henry VII, Henry VIII, and Elizabeth I
10 October 2019, by Dr Julia Cruse
Contrary to what we may imagine, in these ‘media-savvy’ days, the cultivation of image is no recent matter: before the camera was invented, royalty and the upper classes commissioned portraits, keen to show themselves to fullest advantage. One even comes across the concept of one’s ‘better side’ (of the face), although Oliver Cromwell, for all his faults, in requesting ‘warts and all’, presumably preferred realism to artistic licence.
Similarly, propaganda, as a term, has overtones of terrible times in Europe during a dark period of the 20th century, yet was far from unknown to our forebears, who tried to show themselves (to potential rivals in particular) as rich, powerful, and manly.
Julia fed us brief historical facts, while introducing a number of portraits relating to the reigns of the three major Tudor monarchs as relevant examples of image and propaganda.
Henry VII, as king, was somewhat insecure, lacking true entitlement to the throne, so strove to develop his position. Unduly criticised as parsimonious, holding onto his money, he brought peace, prosperity, and economies to the House of Tudor, spending wisely, in order to showcase his image, significantly in his expenditure on the marriage of Prince Arthur to Catherine of Aragon. He had also been wise in his own marriage, to Elizabeth of York, in uniting the opposing Houses of Lancaster and York.
His early portraits, from around 1500 and 1505, were unglamorous, yet a later allegorical painting, intended as a possible altarpiece, showed him, relatively idealised, with his wife and all seven children, although three of those children had died when young.
He concerned himself with improving palaces (Baynard’s Castle, Greenwich Palace, and Richmond Palace) and religious houses, and sought to see his lineage represented at Windsor; he added the Lady Chapel to Westminster Abbey, and used imagery in the embellishment of these various buildings: the portcullis (a powerful symbol nowadays), the red dragon, Tudor rose, greyhound, and hawthorn bush (supposedly whence he retrieved Richard III’s crown on Bosworth Field), big, powerful, visual images.
Henry VIII is more easily recognisable to us, from Holbein’s classic depiction from 1536, while Eworth’s 1545 rendition shows a stout king standing ‘four square’: these the Henry VIII which we recognise from theatre, film, and television, a large, strong, powerful, well-dressed monarch. A dynasty portrait cartoon copy, commissioned by the Stuart monarch, Charles II, set in a 1537 mural, fully allegorical, showing Henry VII and
Elizabeth of York with Henry VIII and Jane Seymour, is completed by a central panel inscribing, in Latin, Henry VIII’s assertion of his father’s successes being outdone by his own in driving out his father’s ministers and restoring the Church of England as the established religion. A further allegorical painting, from around 1545, presents us with the family of Henry VIII, not from real life, bearing dynastic elements and ancillary symbols (Mother Jak and Wil Somers).
Elizabeth I, Henry VIII’s daughter by Anne Boleyn, was fully aware of the power of presentation, wishing to record, in the c1574/75 Pelican Portrait of Nicholas Hilliard, a sense of pious sacrifice for her country, the imagery here of mother pelican feeding her young with blood which she stabs from her breast [in Christian art, the pelican is associated with Christ’s giving of Himself in the Eucharist]. The Darnley Portrait, dating from about the same time, done from life, shows a more upright, masculine-looking queen. In 1570, 13 years after his death, a painting of The Family of Henry VIII associates Philip and Mary with the aspect of War, while Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Elizabeth I represent Peace and Plenty.
Also around 1575/76, Nicholas Hilliard’s Phœnix Portrait includes pearls, illustrative of wealth, purity, and virginity, this theme of a chaste, virgin queen (Elizabeth is known to history as the Virgin Queen) continuing in the 1583 Sieve Portrait by Quentin Metsys the Younger, the sieve alluding to a Roman vestal virgin account, and also, on the curtains, is further imagery of Æneas and Dido. The 1565 Ermine Portrait of Nicholas Hilliard depicts that animal (the stoat when white), symbolising royalty, inasmuch as regal garments are trimmed with ermine fur.
The defeat of the Spanish Armada of 1588 (not least thanks to appalling weather conditions) saw George Gower use the globe as a symbol of world dominance, together with the crown, robes of hues implying purity, and wretched broken Spanish galleons: England enjoyed a pre-eminent position, her queen illustrating that pre-eminence. Around four years later, Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, in his Ditchley Portrait, shows Elizabeth as ‘Gloriana’, the personification of Glory, generous, not vengeful, standing on a globe. A decade later, Isaac Oliver is attributed with the Rainbow Portrait, revealing a pronouncedly feminine queen in low-cut dress, with a snake, symbolic of wisdom, and the queen’s ears and lips suggesting she hears all, sees all, and knows all that is going on. Nicholas Hilliard’s miniature of Elizabeth, aged 66 (c1600) is by no means flattering, yet, once again, we encounter a queen who is wealthy as well as chaste.
A markedly different History lesson this, combining itself with Art and the interpretation of those conventions employed in art, from which we can identify the development of the cult of image, signs and symbols, control of words, ‘airbrushing’, the distortion of truth, etc., all of which, in 2019, colour our everyday experience.